The Business of Storytelling
My first job was as a bank teller. We had high stools on wheels, and I was glued to mine. I mastered the art of effortlessly wheeling from the computer to the back counter and back to my window, never leaving the comfort of my seat. There were the occasional blips- like when I scrambled to stand up and got my feet tangled in the trash container. The disconcerted customer peered curiously over the counter, wondering where I’d disappeared to. I leaped up, hoping and failing to make a graceful reappearance. Or when I accidentally set off the alarm while pulling myself back into my window. You’d think the sight of the police bursting through the doors would have cured me of my habit, but you’d be wrong. The experience that finally got my attention was caused in part by the fact that I always sat on one foot when perched on my throne. For some reason, I actually had to get off the stool (must have been lunch or break time!). As I untucked my leg, I heard a customer gasp. “Dear Lord!” he exclaimed to another teller. “I thought that girl only had one leg, and that was why she was always sitting down!”
Years later, that story came in handy when I was trying to convince a class of bank tellers that they needed to stand up and greet their customers. I could have just told them that sitting is rude and standing up indicates interest and welcome. That sitting on stools did not make a good first impression. That if they didn’t start standing up, the banks would take away their stools (many did!). But I would probably have just gotten folded arms and stony stares. Being on your feet all day is hard, and convincing tellers to change their habits isn’t easy. Using my own experience and the inevitable humiliation that followed (colleagues can be tough!) helped them laugh at my discomfort while taking the point.
Engaging stories help humanize the abstract, make information relatable, evoke a personal connection, stimulate an emotional investment and improve memory. It is a powerful way to effectively communicate information.
An ancient means of passing on traditions, educating, entertaining, and teaching values, storytelling predates written history. Revered elders passed cultural and social information from generation to generation through stories, a tradition that continues today over Thanksgiving dinners and family get-togethers. Children learn about behavioral consequences through lessons learned in fairy tales. The Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales have, for better or worse, been “Disney-fied” to leave out some of the more graphic and horrific details, but every one contains a lesson. Depending on the listener’s imagination, Little Red Riding Hood taught children to always be suspicious of talking animals, or that predators can be sweet-talking strangers. Either way: beware! Disney made sure we knew that the consequences of lying involved long noses and donkey tails, and that we had a conscience that sounded weirdly like a cricket.
We read stories, and the best ones capture our imaginations, take us on journeys and transform us. We watch stories in movies and TV. Music is storytelling; how many memories come alive when we hear a certain song? Marketing is storytelling that invites us to imagine ourselves sexier, healthier, faster, more beautiful, and with wind-whipped hair, if only we purchase and use the product.
The most effective communicators tend to be excellent storytellers. Sir Ken Robinson, who has some of the most-watched TED Talks, deftly uses stories to make his points.
Storytelling is even good for our mental and physical health. The most compelling stories evoke empathy and humor and are memorable, which trigger the “feel-good” hormones- endorphins, oxycontin, serotonin and dopamine.
So how can we use storytelling to improve communication? We may all feel comfortable with stories as part of our personal lives, but they are important and effective in the business world at making dry details come alive.
According to Stephanie Scotti, using stories in business can help:
• Make the complex simple
• Offer an explanation
• Reveal a new idea or concept
• Reframe or position an idea
• Provide insight
• Disrupt old ways of thinking
• Humanize data
Humanize data? An intriguing concept to the many people who view math as unfathomable. According to Randy Palisoc in his TEDx talk, Math Isn’t Hard, It’s a Language, only 26% of US 12th graders are proficient in math. He argues that the way math is taught is too abstract and offers the experience he had teaching his 5-year old niece. Instead of 2+2, he added “apples”. She quickly answered, “Four. Apples.” He upped the problem to 1 billion plus 4 billion, and she correctly answered, “Five. Billion.” It wasn’t much of a leap to fractions, because she quickly understood that one third plus one third equals two thirds. She then correctly gave the answer to 7×2 + 2×2 . For someone who always twitches when I spot an “x’ in an algebraic problem, I was suitably impressed. Palisoc says too many people believe they just aren’t “wired for math”. He emphasizes that math is a human language, and that we all have the ability to understand it. In other words, humanizing data.
I do care more about apples than numerals.
When people struggle to connect their job with their company’s vision, mission and goals, I use a powerful story to illustrate the importance of understanding the Big Goal. A group of researchers interviewed people working on an assembly line. The first person explained that he checked small parts for defects, over and over, all day long. He shared that it was a boring, routine and unimportant job, but that if he missed one now and then, there were other down the line to catch the mistake. The interviewer went further down the line and asked another person what their job was. She pointed out the window at a gleaming space shuttle. “I build those!” she exclaimed. Two completely different perspectives of the same job. Of particular significance is the fact that the explosion of the Challenger was traced to O-rings, a relatively small piece of the big picture. Every job matters, and we need to know why and how. I use that story to ask clients, “What is YOUR space shuttle?”
What are some ways you can incorporate storytelling into your work life? When you’re discussing customer service, good or bad, give examples that involve the experiences of real people, including consequences and outcomes. Invite people to share their own experiences as customers. If you need to make some changes, big or small, use some relatable stories to illustrate the benefits. In a networking situation, instead of an elevator speech, tell a story that demonstrates the results of what your business does. Share the story of a mistake you made, the consequences of that mistake, and what you learned from it. Use stories to engage, connect, and make your point.
What’s your story?